Robert Johnson recordings

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American blues musician Robert Johnson (1911–1938) is regarded as one of the most important figures in pre-World War II Delta blues. During his brief career, he recorded 29 songs in 1936 and 1937 and several became blues standards, including "Crossroads","Dust My Broom", and "Sweet Home Chicago". In the 1960s, Johnson's recordings reached a broader audience during the American folk music revival and the rise of blues rock.

Johnson's entire output was recorded over a period of five days at two makeshift recording studios in Texas. A total of 59 performances, including alternate takes, were recorded. Producers selected 25, which Vocalion Records issued on 12 two-sided 78 rpm record singles between 1937 and 1939. These went out-of-print, but were the only source of Johnson's work until his recordings were eventually issued on long playing (LP) record albums beginning in 1959. In addition to those on the original singles, another 17 recordings have been released (five additional songs and 12 alternate takes).

In 1990, Columbia Records issued the first comprehensive collection of Johnson's work, The Complete Recordings. Although some of Johnson's 78s sold relatively well for their time, Columbia's double-compact audio disc box set became an unlikely best seller. It reached number 80 on the main American pop album chart and sold over one million copies in the U.S. by 1994. In 2011, for the centennial of Johnson's birth, Columbia reissued the set with an additional recording. Stephen LaVere, who manages Johnson's recording legacy and produced the collections, believes that uncovering additional performances is unlikely: "If any additional material was recorded, it is expected that nothing survived; that if anything did, it would have surfaced long before now [2011] ... but one never knows. Stranger things have happened."[1]


Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, in 2010

Johnson's first recording session took place on Monday, November 23, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas.[2] A makeshift studio had been set up in the Gunter Hotel, where the recording equipment was located in one room and a second, Room 414, was where the musicians performed.[3] Johnson was the only one to record that day and performed solo, singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.[a] Two more sessions followed, on Thursday and Friday, November 27 and 28.[2] After the successful release of "Terraplane Blues", additional recording sessions took place in Dallas, Texas.[2] On Saturday and Sunday, June 19 and 20, 1937, Johnson, again performing solo, was recorded in an unused storage area on the fourth floor of the former Vitagraph and Warner Bros. building.[2]

The sessions were overseen by Art Satherley, who was a producer for the American Record Corporation (ARC) and Vocalion Records in New York City.[5] He arranged for Don Law to produce the actual recording sessions, with recording engineer Vincent Liebler.[6] While it was standard practice for an individual in Law's position to guide musicians during recording, it is not known what, if any, input he had in shaping Johnson's material.[7] However, Law had Johnson record additional performances (or alternate takes) for each of his songs.[8] Session logs show that a total of 59 of Johnson's performances were recorded (two takes of each song plus one third take), but only 42 have been found and the rest are believed to be "lost to the ages".[4]

Original single Indicates original 78 rpm record release
1st released on album Indicates first released on album
# Indicates unissued recording (presumed lost)
List of recordings
Take No.
Title Recording date Location Ref(s)
SA 2580-1Original single "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" November 23,
Gunter Hotel,
Room 414
San Antonio, Texas
SA 2580-2Original single [9]
SA 2581-1Original single "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" [9]
SA 2581-2# [2]
SA 2582-1Original single "Sweet Home Chicago" [9]
SA 2582-2# [2]
SA 2583-11st released on album "Ramblin' on My Mind" [10]
SA 2583-2Original single [9]
SA 2584-11st released on album "When You Got a Good Friend" [9]
SA 2584-21st released on album [10]
SA 2585-11st released on album "Come On in My Kitchen" [10]
SA 2585-2Original single [9]
SA 2586-1Original single "Terraplane Blues" [9]
SA 2586-2# [2]
SA 2587-11st released on album "Phonograph Blues" [9]
SA 2587-21st released on album [10]
SA 2616-1# "32-20 Blues" November 26,
SA 2616-2Original single [9]
SA 2627-1Original single "They're Red Hot" November 27,
SA 2627-2# [2]
SA 2628-1# "Dead Shrimp Blues" [2]
SA 2628-2Original single [9]
SA 2629-1Original single "Cross Road Blues" [9]
SA 2629-21st released on album [10]
SA 2630-1Original single "Walkin' Blues" [9]
SA 2630-2# [2]
SA 2631-1Original single "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" [9]
SA 2631-2# [2]
SA 2632-1Original single "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" [9]
SA 2632-2# [2]
SA 2633-11st released on album "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" [9]
SA 2633-2# [2]
DAL 377-1# "Stones in My Passway" June 19,
Former Vitagraph/
Warner Bros.
Fourth floor,
Dallas, Texas
DAL 377-2Original single [10]
DAL 378-1Original single "I'm a Steady Rollin' Man" [10]
DAL 378-2# [2]
DAL 379-1Original single "From Four Until Late" [10]
DAL 379-2# [2]
DAL 394-1# "Hell Hound on My Trail" June 20,
DAL 394-2Original single [10]
DAL 395-1Original single "Little Queen of Spades" [10]
DAL 395-21st released on album [11]
DAL 396-1Original single "Malted Milk" [10]
DAL 396-2# [2]
DAL 397-11st released on album "Drunken Hearted Man" [10]
DAL 397-21st released on album [11]
DAL 398-1Original single "Me and the Devil Blues" [10]
DAL 398-21st released on album [11]
DAL 399-11st released on album "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" [11]
DAL 399-2Original single [10]
DAL 400-11st released on album "Traveling Riverside Blues" [10]
DAL 400-21st released on album [11]
DAL 401-1Original single "Honeymoon Blues" [10]
DAL 401-2# [2]
DAL 402-11st released on album "Love in Vain Blues" [11]
DAL 402-2Original single [10]
DAL 403-1# "Milkcow's Calf Blues" [11]
DAL 403-2Original single [10]
DAL 403-31st released on album [11]


Johnson's records were initially issued by Vocalion, one of several labels that specialized in jazz and blues. These were supplemented with pressings from ARC's budget labels, Perfect Records, Oriole Records, Romeo Records, and Conqueror Records, which were sold through variety retailers or "dime stores".[12] Although it was thought that several alternate takes might have been issued by these labels,[8] for the 2011 Centennial Collection, LaVere notes that only one, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" (the flip-side of "Terraplane Blues") was actually issued with both takes.[13]

In 1959, "Preachin' Blues" (Johnson's last Vocalion single), was the first of his recordings to appear on a long playing (LP) record album. Folkways Records included it on a compilation of songs by early blues musicians, titled The Country Blues.[14] In 1961, Columbia Records (ARC's successor) released King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first album to feature Johnson exclusively.[15] It includes a mix of recordings originally issued on 78s and previously unreleased material. A follow-up album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II was issued in 1970,[16] again with some original and unreleased recordings.

In 1990, Columbia issued a comprehensive box set, titled The Complete Recordings. With 41 recordings on two compact audio discs, it contained all of Johnson recordings known at the time.[1] However, a second take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" was discovered and released with the reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1998.[1] When The Complete Recordings was updated in 2011 for the centennial of Johnson's birth, the extra track was included, bringing the total to 42.[13]

List of singles with year, title, details, and references
Year Title (take)
A-side / B-side
Details Ref(s)
  • Label: Vocalion (03475)
  • Released: April 1937
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Romeo, Conqueror
  • Label: Vocalion (03519)
  • Released: May 1937
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Romeo
  • Label: Vocalion (03563)
  • Released: 1937[c]
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Romeo
  • Label: Vocalion (03445)
  • Released: 1937[d]
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Oriole
  • Label: Vocalion (03601)
  • Released: 1937
  • Label: Vocalion (03623)
  • Released: 1937[e]
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Romeo
  • Label: Vocalion (03665)
  • Released: 1937[f]
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Romeo, Conqueror
  • Label: Vocalion (03723)
  • Released: 1937[g]
  • Secondary labels: Perfect, Conqueror
  • Label: Vocalion (04002)
  • Released: March 20, 1938
  • Label: Vocalion (04108)
  • Released: 1938
  • Label: Vocalion (04630)
  • Released: February 9, 1939
List of albums with year, title, details, and references
Year Title Details Ref(s)
1959 The Country Blues [27]
1961 King of the Delta Blues Singers
  • Label: Columbia (CL 1654)
  • Released: 1961
  • Format: LP
  • Notes: Reissued in 1998 with "Traveling Riverside Blues" (No. 1) as a bonus track
1970 King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II
  • Label: Columbia (30034)
  • Released: 1970
  • Format: LP
1990 The Complete Recordings
  • Label: Columbia (CK 46222)
  • Released: 1990
  • Format: 2-compact audio disc (CD) box set
  • Notes: Reissued in 2011 as The Centennial Collection with "Traveling Riverside Blues" (No. 1)

Commercial performance[edit]

Billboard magazine did not begin publishing its first record chart that tracked blues releases until 1942,[31] after Johnson's records were out-of-print. Recordings by blues artists were not broadcast on radio, however, they were common in jukeboxes in the South, so their popularity is not solely reflected in the numbers pressed or sold (Billboard's first "Race Records" jukebox chart did not appear until 1945).[31]

Pressing and sales statistics for Vocalion are not available, but Johnson's first record, "Terraplane Blues" backed with "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", is regarded as his most successful.[32][33] It may have sold 10,000 copies, which was considered a hit at the time.[34] His second, "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" / "Dead Shrimp Blues", also "sold well", with an initial pressing of 5,000.[35] The next release, "Cross Road Blues" / "Ramblin' on My Mind", was "widely heard in the Delta", although neither song was considered a hit, according to Conforth and Wardlow.[35] Estimates for the remainder of Johnson's 78 catalogue only show numbers for the secondary labels; Perfect, Oriole, and Romeo pressed an additional 5,550 copies of Johnson's first eight (out of his total of 12) records.[12] By December 1938, Vocalion only included six of Johnson's records in its catalogue, but issued a last, "Love in Vain Blues" / "Preachin' Blues" in February 1939.[33]

Johnson's first albums, King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961) and King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II (1970), were popular with critics and musicians,[36] but failed to sell sufficiently to reach the Billboard charts. However, after Columbia released The Complete Recordings (1990) box set, it reached number 80 on the magazine's Top Pop Albums chart in 1991[37] and, in 1994, was certified platinum (one million copies sold) by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).[38]


  1. ^ Law borrowed a guitar for use for the sessions, since Johnson's was destroyed during his questionable arrest on Sunday.[3] LaVere believes the guitar sounds like a flat top on the San Antonio recordings as opposed to an arch top on those in Dallas.[4]
  2. ^ January 4, 1937, is identified as the pressing date for Perfect and Oriole.[17]
  3. ^ June 1, 1937, appears to be the pressing date for Perfect and Romeo.[17]
  4. ^ February 10, 1937, is identified as the pressing date for Perfect.[17]
  5. ^ August 1, 1937, appears to be the pressing date for Perfect and Romeo.[17]
  6. ^ September 15, 1937, is identified as the release date for Perfect and Romeo.[21]
  7. ^ November 15, 1937, is identified as the release date for Perfect.[12]


  1. ^ a b c LaVere 2011, p. 21.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t LaVere 1990, p. 46.
  3. ^ a b Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 153.
  4. ^ a b LaVere 2011, p. 22.
  5. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 139.
  6. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 156.
  7. ^ Pearson & McCulloch 2008, p. 73.
  8. ^ a b LaVere 1990, pp. 46–47.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w LaVere 2011, p. 24.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w LaVere 2011, p. 25.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h LaVere 2011, p. 26.
  12. ^ a b c Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 152.
  13. ^ a b LaVere 2011, p. 20.
  14. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 1.
  15. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 2.
  16. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 3.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 151.
  18. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 151, 185–186.
  19. ^ a b Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 151, 186.
  20. ^ "32-20 Blues" / "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" (Single notes). Robert Johnson. Oriole Records. 1937. Record label. 7-04-60.CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  21. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 151–152.
  22. ^ "Malted Milk" / "Milkcow's Calf Blues" (Single notes). Robert Johnson. Conqueror Records. 1937. Record label. 8944.CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  23. ^ "I'm a Steady Rollin' Man" / "Stones in My Passway" (Single notes). Robert Johnson. Conqueror Records. 1937. Record label. 8973.CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  24. ^ a b "ABKCO Music v. Stephen LaVere". U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. June 26, 2000. Archived from the original on March 25, 2012. Retrieved March 12, 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  25. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 215.
  26. ^ LaVere 2011, pp. 24, 25.
  27. ^ "The Country Blues: Various artists". Retrieved March 12, 2021.
  28. ^ LaVere 2011, pp. 18, 21.
  29. ^ LaVere 2011, p. 18.
  30. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 7.
  31. ^ a b Whitburn 1988, p. 14.
  32. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 151, 185.
  33. ^ a b LaVere 2011, p. 13.
  34. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 185–186.
  35. ^ a b Conforth & Wardlow 2019, p. 186.
  36. ^ Conforth & Wardlow 2019, pp. 2–3.
  37. ^ "Top Pop Albums". Billboard. Vol. 103 no. 5. February 2, 1991. p. 78. ISSN 0006-2510.
  38. ^ "Gold & Platinum – Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings". RIAA. Retrieved March 13, 2021.